Article Courtesy of The Bradenton Herald
By Mark Price
Published November 30, 2016
The cheerful looking note – adorned by a cartoon Christmas
tree – was sent to homeowners with a less than cheerful headline: “The annual
request to stay off and out of the tree.”
What followed was a friendly holiday threat from the Baxter Community Home
Owners Association in Fort Mill, S.C, to its thousands of members. Anyone caught
climbing the neighborhood’s official Christmas tree could be charged with
“Last year, we found two elementary
school-age kids in the tree,” explained the association, “and
two years ago, it was group of middle school kids.”
Such is the nation’s newest Christmas tradition: A perennial
tug-of-war with homeowners associations (HOAs) over holiday
Conflicts are inevitable, with 66 million Americans living in
common interest communities such as homeowners associations,
condominium associations and gated subdivisions, according to
the Community Associations Network.
Rules are inevitable, too, including guides on when you can put
holiday decorations up; when you must take them down; how far
you can go in the name of “holiday spirit” and (occasionally) if
your 15-foot inflatable Santa poses a neighborhood threat.
In the case
of the Baxter HOA, officials were worried about repair costs and
safety. The steel tree there has been damaged in the past by
climbers, who also could easily fall, get seriously hurt and
There is little doubt that Americans are stubborn when it comes
to their civil decorative rights, often relying on claims of
freedom of speech, freedom of religion and discrimination.
One North Carolina lawyer who works with homeowners
associations recommends avoiding holiday displays with loud music, sound
effects, or bright flashing lights that might irritate neighbors.
Plus, who can resist touching something that glows, pulsates and sometimes plays
music on a cold winter night.
Some decoration disputes have a actually made it to the court level, including a
Detroit HOA that faced a religious discrimination suit after ordering a family
to remove a nativity scene from a yard.
Another case, in Chicago, went to federal appeals court after an HOA told a
homeowner she couldn’t display a Jewish religious symbol on her doorpost,
according to the Massachusetts-based firm of Marcus, Errico, Emmer & Brooks, an
expert in HOA legal affairs.
One thing is clear: Legal experts say HOAs can limit choices for exterior
decorations, according to FindLaw. That’s because property owners agreed to be
bound by community covenants when they bought their home, says the site.
Attorney Cynthia Jones of the Charlotte, N.C., firm Horack, Talley, Pharr &
Lowndes says that its work with HOAs has had only case involving decorations. It
“was not related to holiday decorations,” she recalled, “but rather religious
ones that were on houses in a neighborhood and it wasn't close to the holiday.
“I saw the notice that was distributed regarding the tree in Baxter,” Jones
said. “...It was more vandalism related, as they've had issues with people
damaging the tree and they are trying to stop that.”
Charlotte Attorney Michael Hunter, who also works with HOAs, has recommendations
for homeowners on how to avoid troubles.
First, he says, read the community’s governing documents or check with the HOA
or its management company to see if there are any specific restrictions. “I have
seen communities with rules stating that decorations cannot be put up more than
a certain number of days before the holiday, and must be taken down within a
certain number of days afterward,” he says.
Also, avoid displays with loud music, sound effects, or bright flashing lights
that might be irritating to your neighbors. “In other words, use common sense
and be respectful of others. Not everyone recognizes or celebrates the same
holidays,” he said.
The National Association of Realtors has tips, too, for people who are
considering violating their HOA rules.
First, it advises talking to the neighbors. Then, the association says you
should consider taking the case to the home owners association board, to ask for
an amendment or exception to the holiday decorations.
If they refuse and you decorate anyway, a nasty letter followed by a fine might
be the worst it gets, the association says.